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Human Rights Day: Words without borders

By Index on Censorship / 10 December, 2010

As ideas move freely around the world attacks on writers continue, reports Lisa Appignanesi

On the morning of 12 July 1991, the body of 44-year-old Professor Hitoshi Igarashi was found in the corridor near his seventh-floor office at Tsukuba University, 40 miles northeast of Tokyo. The translator of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and himself a Muslim convert, Igarashi had been stabbed to death by an assailant carrying out the murderous orders laid down in Ayatollah Khomeini’s notorious fatwa on Rushdie and his publishers.

Igarashi’s murder, in an environment so distant from the Britain where Rushdie’s book had first appeared three years earlier, made me viscerally aware of what the fatwa of 14 February 1989 had set in train: the edicts of religious and state power, and indeed of criminal undergrounds, had a lethal resonance on writers and translators well beyond any geographic frontiers. The world had emphatically become a “global village”. In one of those ironic synchronies that history is prone to, 1991 was also the year that the world wide web first went live, though it would take another decade for it to acquire its current prominence.

Borders have, of course, long been permeable to writing and ideas. They have also been permeable to fear. In its Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books), established in 1559 and only abolished four centuries later in 1966, the Catholic Church proscribed a host of works dangerous to the morals of the faithful — from Johannes Kepler’s astronomical writings in the 17th century, to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791), to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1953). But the targeting of writers, as well as their writings, by religious and state authorities both outside and inside domestic frontiers has taken on a particular virulence over the past 20 years. The speed of communication the internet permits, its blindness to geography, seems to have stoked the fires of prohibition. The freer and easier it is for ideas to spread, the more punitive the powers that wish to silence or censor become. Then, too, in much of the world, outside the liberal enclaves of secular Europe, God has never died and seems to need increasingly arduous protection from purported blasphemers.

The events surrounding The Satanic Verses were prophetic. After 9/11, the anger of conservative believers, Muslim or Christian, over the way they and their beliefs were represented was even more readily sparked. Skins had grown thin. In 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered because his film about the subjection of women in Islam, Submission, insulted Muslims; threats to his collaborator, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then an MP, led to her needing long-term police protection. When the conservative Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005, it resulted in protests throughout the Muslim world, some 100 deaths,attacks on Danish embassies and a brutal assault on Kurt Westergaard, the best known of the Danish cartoonists.

Both the teaching of Darwin in schools and performances of the purportedly “blasphemous” Jerry Springer: The Opera have attracted protests by militant Christians both in Britain and the USA. Films of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights came in for similar protest. Meanwhile, Christian librarians in the USA saw fit to keep books as innocuous as The Wizard of Oz off their shelves, for fear of contaminating young minds.

Secular power, as we’ve long known, can be as jealous as religious power and react as adversely to criticism, silencing writers in brutal ways. In 2006, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose bold reports on Chechnya hardly endeared her to Vladimir Putin’s hierarchy, was murdered. In the same year, this time in Italy, the writer Roberto Saviano began receiving the death threats that forced him into a hidden, itinerant life under police protection, following the publication of his bestselling book Gomorrah, which details the workings of the Neapolitan-based Camorra and its mafia-like international reach.

Strange to say, while evidently recognising the importance of literature, ideas and investigative journalism, the censorious seem to be blind to the fact history so flagrantly illuminates: that ideas and writings outlive both their makers and their censors. The works of Kant, Paine and Flaubert are still with us, but we have long forgotten the particular papal committee that sought to ban them. The power of words trumps temporal expedience.

But writers, themselves, are made of flesh and have families. They can be silenced by death, by imprisonment, by the conditions of exile and by fear itself. That fear, in countries such as Britain, where free expression is invoked as a right, can come from a variety of sources. It can be as general as an atmosphere of political correctness — a sense of pressure from an ethnic or religious community or publishers alert to these; or as specific as the possibility of a libel suit. And where free speech is chilled, where access to information, ideas and literature is severely restricted, the very fabric of our lives is impoverished.

When I took on the position first of deputy president of English PEN in 2004 and then of president in 2007, it was clear to me that the permeable, globalised world in which we live meant that campaigning to protect endangered writers abroad, though crucial, was no longer a sufficient undertaking. We had to clean up our own stables as well. How could we deplore the cry of blasphemy by Muslim leaders, the harsh penalties of Islamo-fascist regimes, when an antiquated statute outlawing blasphemy still existed in our own books? Meanwhile, the Turkish regime, which we criticised for its law criminalising any denigration of Turkishness, could point to the continued existence here of seditious libel. We were often reminded that many of the countries of the old commonwealth base their legislation and jurisprudence on British law and cite our example when carrying out repressive measures.

It was evident that our defamation laws needed attention. Blasphemy was top of the agenda for rescinding. Some Muslim groups had been campaigning ever since the Rushdie affair to have it extended to include offence to Islam. Far better, it seemed to us, to establish parity by abolishing the hoary old law altogether.

Achieving change in legislation is ever slow and never easy. Campaigns need partners and growing momentum. They also need a political moment. Ironically, our sense that the blasphemy laws needed repealing coincided with the Labour government’s wish to extend the limits of offence. Trapped in worries about security and confusion about the meaning of respect‚ on 24 November 2004 it introduced a law banning incitement to religious hatred. In large part a response to conservative Muslim pressure, the law was loosely framed. Enacted in its original unamended form, it would have placed impossible limits on expression as well as thought. It would have criminalised any questioning of belief — itself a system of ever-changing ideas — and left any satirist open to protracted court proceedings. It would also have criminalised a good part of what contending religions themselves teach about each other. Had the law existed back in 1989, Rushdie, instead of being protected by the state, would have found himself censored by the courts.

The very promulgation of the law seemed to give minority faiths the licence to protest and shout “offence”, often against writers who shared their own homeland, imaginary or real. A group of Birmingham Sikhs rioted in December 2004 in protest against Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti and closed it down, while the government — ever ready to make concessions to minority action in the name of a bureaucratised multiculturalism — applauded their exercise of free speech. A contingent of Bangladeshis in London’s East End, in 2006, protested against the filming of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, with the result that many of the Brick Lane scenes had to be filmed elsewhere.

But the gathered vocal force of opposition to the legislation, our “Free Expression Is No Offence” campaign, together with the help of experienced parliamentarians such as Evan Harris, then an MP, and Lord Lester, won through. The PEN amendment, eventually introduced into the bill, resulted in making it unworkable. It marked the first robust protection of free expression in our statute books. Offence cannot be protected by law, which nonetheless protects individuals from harm.

Reform of the civil libel laws was next. These laws promulgated at a time when wealth and reputation were thought to walk arm in arm and have accrued in precedents. Libel courts thrive on conditional fee agreements open alike to a Sudanese businessman angered by the memoirs of the young woman whom he and his wife had, in effect, enslaved; to an oligarch seeking to silence a journalist alleging corruption in a Ukrainian newspaper with only a hundred subscribers in Britain; and to the British Chiropractic Association attesting that its reputation had been tarnished by Simon Singh’s queries about its wide-ranging claims.

Thanks to the campaign run jointly by Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science, momentum to reform the laws reached a sufficient pitch for the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties to commit to change in their manifestos. Following Lord Lester’s private member’s bill in the Lords in May 2010, the government has promised to publish its proposals for reform in the coming year. We will keep them to it.

Although Britain seems to welcome the world into its libel courts, its new points-based visa system adamantly works to keep writers, artists, academics and students from non-EU countries out. The system, which at borders has the effect of turning everyone into a suspected terrorist or asylum seeker, also endangers our status as a cultural hub and centre for the knowledge industries. Impeding the free circulation of ideas and art in this way is an attack on citizens and their freedom to hear, to learn and to see. Living behind walls of unrestricted bureaucracy makes prisoners of us all.

As I near the end of my term as president of English PEN, I would like to think that we have accomplished something. But keeping the terrain of expression free is a continual challenge and one that hardly affects writers alone. In this permeable and stratified world, where injustice abounds, we neither want to be threatened into restrictive practices nor intimidated into false respect. We all need fresh ideas, open exchange and imagination to keep our plural democracies robust. We also need them to make life worth living.

The 50th anniversary of the English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee Committee is marked on 16 December with the launch of Beyond Bars, a special issue of Index on Censorship’s magazine Subscribe here

Lisa Appignanesi is the author of Mad, Bad and Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present (Virago) and editor of Free Expression Is No Offence (Penguin). Her new book is All About Love: Anatomy of an Unruly Emotion

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